Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Civil War Museums--Part I

Gettysburg Visitor Center and Museum--1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, PA http://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm

Re-opened last year, the new re-located Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center is not to be missed when coming to the legendary battlefield.

Originally placed along the Zeigler's Grove portion of the Park, near the small white Bryan Homestead and next to the Cyclorama building, the Visitor Center was well-attended throughout its decades of service. With a famous Electric Map that explained the battle through a series of moving lights and with a comprehensive museum and gift shop, the Visitor Center was usually the first place both Civil War buffs and Gettysburg first-timers went upon entering the hallowed ground.

With the 1999 Gettysburg Management Plan, the Gettysburg Foundation partnered with the Park Service to restore Zeigler's Grove to its original appearance and arranged for a new and expanded Visitor Center to be housed along Hunt Avenue behind Culp's Hill and near Union General Meade's headquarters during the battle, the Lydia Leister House.

Not only did the Visitor Center move, but so did the world-famous Cyclorama painting. This 1884 circular painting, very popular in the late 1800's, of Pickett's Charge by artist Paul Philippoteaux has been meticulously restored in a multi-million dollar process (which the author was able to witness in various phases). The end result is now located in the Visitor Center and is breathtaking. With first-hand accounts read aloud and special effects that bring Pickett's Charge to life (note the dawn breaking in the sky--wow!), the visitor to Gettysburg, whether a first-timer or hundredth-timer, will be ashamed to miss it!

Another integral partner during this undertaking was the History Channel. Thanks to the History Channel, the experience is made even more robust by the many films located throughout the Visitor Center. The main movie, A New Birth of Freedom, is narrated by Morgan Freeman and includes the master of Lincoln voice-overs, Sam Waterston (the best Lincoln in my book). It tells Lincoln's story and the Civil War's complicated journey up to and including the Battle of Gettysburg.

The updated museum shows the artifacts connected to Gettysburg with cleaner and more technology-driven visitor interpretation. From a room that shows us slavery in the 19th Century to the first two years of the year and then into a display room that represents each day of the horrific July 1863 battle, the visitor is enthralled by how these objects witnessed each and every event. The museum culminates in Lee's retreat, the aftermath, and the final years of the Civil War.

Of shopping is part of the plan, then the new gift shop will entice to spend money on a plethora of books, t-shirts and quality gift items. The Refreshment Saloon aptly provides lunch and snacks and Ranger Programs on a variety of topics are presented daily at the Visitor Center and throughout the battlefield.

Another aspect of the experience is the wealth of research facilities available. A full Education Center affords a chance for research as does a Resource Center complete with computers connecting researchers with many different links to genealogoy, regimental histories, various libraries and state databases vital to historians, teachers and writers of all types.

Both groups and individuals are welcome at the Gettysburg Visitor Center with plenty of free car and motorcoach parking. The Gettysburg Foundation outdid themselves with the information included within the unique, round, barn-like structure. It was a long process to relocate the building, including town hall meetings, land surveying, fundraising efforts and construction.

The end result is well worth it. Visit as soon as you can!

(Hours of Operation--8:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M.- April 1 to May 31.8:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M.- June 1 to August 31.8:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M.- September 1 to October 31.8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.- November 1 to March 31.)

Kristie Poehler

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